Education Opinion

Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Matthew Lynch — September 11, 2013 3 min read
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Sadly, over half of black young men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma. Of the dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point. Perhaps there is no real connection between these two statistics, or the eerily similar ones associated with young Latino men. Are these young people bad apples, destined to fail academically and then live a life of crime? If some of the theories of genetic predisposition are true, perhaps these young men never stood a chance at success and have simply accepted their lots in life.

But what if those answers, all of them, are just cop outs? What if scoffing at a connection between a strong education and a life lived on the straight and narrow is an easy way to bypass the real issues in K-12 learning?

Children often model what they see. In cases when they grow up watching criminal behavior, the odds are stacked against them when it comes to breaking out of the family mold. While parents have an extreme influence children, so does the K-12 education experience. More and more educators are getting behind the idea that removal from classroom settings because of discipline issues is an antiquated practice and one that does more harm than good to students.

Still, the school-to-prison pipeline has a long way to go to resemble any sort of improvement. It is estimated that black K-12 students are three times more likely to face suspension from school than their white peers. When that fact is linked to the statistics listed above, it becomes clear that removal as a form of “teaching a lesson” does not actually educate anyone. Only in homes where parents hold their children accountable can a suspension actually make a positive difference.

In his piece “A Broken Windows Approach to Education Reform,” Forbes writer James Marshall Crotty makes a direct connection between drop-out and crime rates. He argues that if educators will simply take a highly organized approach to keeping kids in school, it will make a difference in the crime statistics of the future. He says:

“Most importantly, instead of merely insisting on Common Core Standards of excellence, we must provide serious sticks for non-compliance. And not just docking teacher and administrative pay. The real change needs to happen on the student and parent level.”

He cites the effectiveness of states not extending driving privileges to high school dropouts or not allowing athletic activities for students who fail a class. With higher stakes associated with academic success, students will have more to lose if they walk away from their K-12 education. And the higher the education level, the lower the risk of criminal activity, statistically speaking.

Keeping close tabs on drop-out risks is certainly a step in the right direction when it comes to closing the school to prison pipeline. Better academic tracking, in order to notice areas of potential problems early on, and more mentorship intervention when it comes to discipline issues are also of utmost importance.

Students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or turning to crime need more than a good report card. They need alternative suggestions on living a life that rises above their current circumstances. For a young person to truly have a shot at an honest life, he or she has to believe in the value of an education and its impact on good citizenship. That belief system has to come from direct conversations about making smart choices with trusted adults and peers.

What can K-12 schools put in place to increase academic success and close the school to prison pipeline?

If you would like to invite Dr. Lynch to speak or serve as a panelist at an upcoming event, please email him at lynch39083@aol.com.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.